In what he called a 'big move', the childcare minister said, 'I will be revisiting the options on how to make sure the sector has both the right number of staff and the right quality of staff to deliver 30 hours,' adding that 'this review of requirements for level 3 qualifications will be delivered alongside the workforce strategy'.
Speaking at the annual NDNA conference, Mr Gyimah said changes to requirements would be consulted upon, but added, 'I am not going to give a timetable today' - a statement that prompted concerned heckles from the audience.
During consultations with the sector over the last few months he acknowledged that 'the most common issue in terms of attracting staff at Level 2 and 3 is the introduction of the GCSE requirement'.
'I have heard from employers who feel the requirement is reducing the pool of new employees,' he added. 'Others support the requirements and say other factors such as the improving economy is helping. Others say that studying GCSE English and maths alongside the EYE is helping more people access level 3.'
The minister emphasised that he hoped that his attendance at the conference, in spite of the ongoing Westminster turmoil, went some way to reassuring the sector that he was taking their concerns seriously.
Asked by Nigel Rolfe, managing director of Cherry Childcare, about the timetable of the review, Mr Gyimah said he hoped the fact 'we are listening to you has given a signal of intent that we want to do something about this very urgently'.
Mr Rolfe warned him, 'I am not satisfied with your answer because we can't wait Sam. If we delay this until the autumn and a decision is made in September or October, we have lost a year. You want to introduce the 30 hours next year. We aren't going to have the staff on the ground to deliver the 30 hours.'
Mr Gyimah replied, 'I am not going to give a timetable today. I have said it is a priority. Let us go through this properly and let us get it right. You will hear from us shortly.'
He also said that the workforce strategy would focus on recruitment and retention and would look at progression from Level 3 to 6 as the current system 'might be standing in the way of staff moving on'.
In response to a question about the need to reward and retain staff in the PVI sector, he said he recognised that the sector needed to make a profit and reward staff 'and so we have set funding rates at a level to enable you to do so'.
However, he added, 'If the Government is buying 30 hours, we need to structure it in such a way that where we offer extras, [the structure] takes them into account. The offer is 30 hours of free childcare. We need to be very clear what that involves.'
He also said that the Government's current review of how the funding was distributed by local authorities was looking at the fact that rates passed by central Government to local authorities were sometimes determined by 'accidents of history'.
The system, he added, was sometimes unfair and 'I want to make sure the extra £1bn a year by 2019/20 goes to you on the frontline.'
NDNA chief executive Purnima Tanuku cautiously welcomed the prospect of the GCSE review. She said, ‘The minister talked generally about the Government’s forthcoming workforce strategy, acknowledging concerns over qualification requirements and promising to review the options.'
Mr Gyimah spoke of the 'need for both the right quality workforce and the right numbers of people in the workforce', particularly with 30 hours on the horizon, added Ms Tanuku. ‘This is good news, but now the sector will be keen to hear a more detailed timescale of when this will happen.’
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, also welcomed the news and called for functional skills to be recognised as GCSE equivalents.
Mr Leitch said, ‘Many providers have told us of the staffing challenges that the current situation presents, and it is concerning that the requirements are acting as a barrier preventing talented potential practitioners from entering the early years workforce.
‘With the imminent introduction of the 30-hours free entitlement offer, it is crucial that the sector is suitably staffed in order to meet the additional demand for places.
'And so, we hope that the review will recommend that functional skills be accepted and recognised as GCSE equivalents.’
Liz Bayram, PACEY's chief executive, acknowledged the aim of the requirement being to raise standards, but added that they are in practice, 'having the opposite effect, with many practitioners unable to progress their early years career because they do not meet this requirement'.
'PACEY will be keen to ensure the review recognises the important role robust, improved functional skills qualifications can play as equivalent to GCSE maths and English, just as they are for other professions,' continued Ms Bayram.
During his speech, Mr Gyimah also launched Millie’s Mark, a quality standard for settings in which all employees are trained in paediatric first aid (PFA).
The NDNA has been working with the Department for Education to develop and pilot the scheme, with support from Dan and Joanne Thompson, whose daughter Millie died after choking on food at a nursery in Stockport in 2012.
Following the Thompsons’ successful campaign, there will be a new EYFS requirement from September this year: All newly qualified staff with a childcare Level 2 and 3 qualification will have an emergency paediatric first aid or full paediatric first aid certificate.
Ms Thompson said, ‘Millie's Mark is a direct outcome of our campaign as parents, for parents. Following the loss of our darling daughter Millie, we strive to encourage nurseries to be exemplary in paediatric first aid practice and we are looking forward to seeing the first Millie's Mark being awarded later in the year.’
Ms Tanuku, said the NDNA is 'delighted' with the announcement, adding that the association believes 'passionately that it will make a difference in keeping children safe'.
She added, ‘Millie’s Mark will soon be well-known to parents all over the country as a clear indicator of the highest standards in keeping children safe from harm.
‘Seeing that a nursery has achieved Millie’s Mark will help parents make informed decisions when they are choosing childcare and it will be great for nurseries to show how serious they are about providing the best services possible.’
Children’s charity 4Children said those without the certificate would not be included in ratios, but that a three-month was being allowed to complete PFA after starting with a new employer.
Ms Bayram welcomed the development, adding that a recent survey found 94 per cent of members favoured having more first aid-trained staff in settings.
She said, ‘This is fantastic news for the sector and for all children in early years settings and their families. PACEY has been working alongside others in the sector to call for the requirements for Paediatric First Aid (PFA) training in group settings to match childminding settings, where all childminders and their assistants must hold a full PFA certificate.
‘The tragic Millie Thompson case in 2012 brought into sharp focus the fact that paediatric first aid training can mean the difference between the life and death of a child. We are delighted that Government has listened and made this change that could ultimately save a child's life.’